EPA Report Ties Fracking To Groundwater Contamination in Wyoming. But What Does That Mean For Texas?

Categories: The Environment

touring-the-fracking-gas-drilling-sites-of-arlington.jpg
Photo by Taryn Walker
A gas well in Arlington
For folks in Dallas, where the council-appointed gas drilling task force is running to stand still, or in Southlake, the subject of a recent cover story on towns grappling with urban drilling, this EPA report released today tying fracking to groundwater contamination in Wyoming probably doesn't mean much. We get our water from surface sources, not from underground.

But the folks out in surrounding counties who depend on groundwater as a primary source of drinking water should take note. Energy companies have long said there isn't a single proven instance where the fracking process itself -- the injection of millions of gallons of water laced with industrial chemicals at astronomical pressures, fracturing shale formations and releasing methane -- has resulted in groundwater contamination. Sure, surface spills and containment pits have been known to leak fracking fluid and the backwash of brine that occurs when a well is drilled, contaminating groundwater. But the process itself is safe, they assure us.

That isn't technically true, as a New York Times article pointed out, unearthing a shelved EPA study documenting that very thing in West Virginia. But quick settlements between energy company and aggrieved water-well owners -- accompanied by nondisclosure agreements -- have ensured instances of contamination remain secret.

Either way, none of this has stopped the industry from repeating the line like a mantra.

And there's been a host of studies that downplay the risk. It's hard to argue with the logic: How could fracking fluid injected deep underground migrate into comparatively shallow drinking water wells? As a University of Texas researcher studying this very thing pointed out in that aforementioned cover story, it is possible. All it takes is one hydraulic fracture, an old oil or gas well with a busted casing or a bad cement job allowing the frack fluid to penetrate, migrate its way up into shallower groundwater formations and, bingo, contamination. That's what happened in West Virginia.

Until now, anyway, there hasn't been the sort of exhaustive study that identified widespread contamination the way this study does. What the EPA's preliminary report accomplishes is the shattering of that oft-repeated energy company mantra. It can't happen. But in Pavillion, Wyoming, on the Wind River formation, it did.

Predictably, the industry and the legislators in its pocket are pouncing. A spokesman for Encana, the company that contaminated the water, told the AP that the EPA's sampling process could have been compromised. But the EPA used hydrocarbon-free lubricant during drilling and eliminated all other materials that could have contributed the compounds they detected.

What they did find, through sampling of 35 domestic wells, two municipal wells and two deep observation wells, was benzene -- a known carcinogen -- and a number of other compounds commonly used in fracking. In shallow monitoring wells, benzene was found in concentrations 30 times higher than the EPA's maximum concentration levels, suggesting contamination by surface pits. But in one deep observation well, levels of benzene were 49 times safe drinking levels.

It's unlikely that the benzene or any of the other compounds found came from gas condensate, which may contain them in naturally occurring levels. This gas is dry.

In the deep observation wells, researchers also identified an uncharacteristically high pH, which was caused by potassium chloride and potassium hydroxide, used in fracking fluid as solvents, among other things.

How'd it get there? Any number of ways, though the report singles out casing that doesn't extend below the deepest domestic wells, and fracture zones without enough vertical separation between them and the water these folks drink -- which, by the way, is now being provided to them, courtesy of Encana.

So, what does this mean for the people of the Barnett Shale? Hard to tell. These are different kinds of rock formations that, undoubtedly, behave differently when fractured. But if it tells us anything, it's that the assurances of the industry are no longer good enough. Everyone -- landowners and municipalities alike -- took the money they handed out in the heady days when natural gas prices were high, and didn't ask too many questions. Or they didn't until it was too late.

Now, in the heat of a headlong rush to develop our vast natural gas reserves -- already well underway here in North Texas -- and to secure our energy independence, or whatever the boiler plate is these days, it might be prudent to stop and see what the EPA has to say when it releases that big study on fracking in the Barnett and elsewhere (initial results expected by the end of 2012). Because, as they point out in this study, you can't get into an aquifer and filter out the contaminants. Once you despoil it, that source of water is gone, for you and maybe even for generations to come.


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12 comments
trudat
trudat

...yep, and few people are even talking about the relationship of fracking to the mysterious earthquakes that have been popping up across North Texas in the last couple of years...the God of the big companies that do the fracking  is the dollar bill...they'll say and do anything as long as it makes money for them..so continue with the truth...

pak152
pak152

"Results from more than 1,700 water wells sampled and tested prior to proposed gas drilling in Susquehanna County, Pa., show methane to be ubiquitous in shallow groundwater, with a clear correlation of methane concentrations with surface topography.Specifically, water wells located in lowland valley areas exhibit significantly higher dissolved methane levels than water wells in upland areas, with no relation to proximity of existing gas wells. The correlation of methane concentrations with elevation indicates that, on a regional level, elevated methane concentrations in groundwater are a function of geologic features, rather than shale gas development."http://www.ogj.com/articles/pr...

Lisa Bracken
Lisa Bracken

Not only did it happen in Pavilion, it happened on West Divide Creek (seen in Gasland - journeyoftheforsaken.com) back in 2004, when during hydraulic fracturing operations, EnCana's frac crew blew out 1105 million cubic feet of natural gas into the surrounding environment. Remedial cementing has failed to stop benzene from leaking into the groundwater - even all this time later. Years of minimizing that investigation as well as an investigation into another blowout in 2008 have kept those cases under very tight wraps. Evidently, the Science Advisory Board even directed the EPA to inappropriately excise West Divide Creek (and Pavilion) from its new fracing study. While a good deal of truth can be carefully concealed with a host of tactics used to minimize investigations and skew data, EnCana is poised to drill nine new wells from the F12E pad directly into and frac the heck out of the blowout on West Divide Creek. Regardless of how carefully the COGCC and EPA work to confine damning evidence, EnCana itself, is all set to once again prove unequivocally exactly why fracing should be avoided at all costs. Fortunately, corporate greed is capable of becoming its own best deterrent.

pak152
pak152

from the WSJ story "The EPA itself said the Wyoming field differs from most fracking sites because the fracking "is taking place in and below the drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells"—unlike most sites where fracking is done far below the water table."http://online.wsj.com/article/...

the majority of fracking takes place well below the aquifer. if you frack in the aquifer you're going to have problems. that would be expected. the vast majority of problems result not from the fracking but from problems with the casing.

This article contains some good information about fracking and links to credible sources (I think MIT counts) http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/...

jfpo
jfpo

Goddamned EPA! Perry is right! This agency must be eliminated so the free market can prevail. After we all die prematurely from cancer, we won't give a shit anyways.

Darrd2010
Darrd2010

You have to have enough 'annular' casing that goes ALL THE WAY down to the point when it ends at a curve and then goes out in a horizontal position. You don't have that then you run the risk of breaks from the top and down to the bottom. A gas worker told me that there is NEVER a guarantee that you will not have seepage or not have a compromised casing at any point. It's just the way the business is. The practice of 'horizontal drilling' is still new and the data is still not in as to the hows and whys of it all. Which is just another reason to slow down and not rush to get it.

Edgar
Edgar

You say the report blames the contamination on "casing that doesn't extend below the deepest domestic wells, and fracture zones without enough vertical separation between them and the water."  Does it pinpoint which of the two is culpable?

The second would certainly unseat the industry matra that the fracking process itself has never resulted in contamination, but I don't see how the first would.  And even if the second possible cause could be proven, the easy industry reply will be that the frack was poorly designed.  After all, the EPA's statement that there was "not enough" space between the fracture zone and aquifers implies that there is some depth at which there could be enough space to prevent contamination through a fracture.

JD93
JD93

It seems like you're trying to bury the lead by focusing on methane.  What about the benzene, xylenes, gasoline range organics, diesel range organics, and total purgeable hydrocarbons in ground water samples, discussed in the EPA article?  Did those also show up in the 1,700 water wells referenced in the Oil & Gas Journal article?  The EPA article also states "Elevated levels of dissolved methane in domestic wells generally increase in those wells in proximity to gas production wells."  Try again.

Montemalone
Montemalone

Plus, in the mean time, you can run your water through your furnace for free gas!

Edgar
Edgar

What about the cases that involve, by all accounts, methane only, with none of the hallmark ingredients of fracking, that are nonetheless systematically offered as proof of contamination by fracking?  That gets us beyond Pavilion and closer to the more relevant question of what danger, if any, fracking poses when properly regulated.

jfpo
jfpo

A built-in blowtorch in every kitchen: Awesome!

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